Blitzen Trapper nearly realize rock opera ambitions
Blitzen Trapper’s Wild And Reckless tries to be a lot of things – a spiritual successor to their 2008 opus Furr; an expanded soundtrack to their recent identically titled theatrical production; a loose concept album about the friction between the dangers of nostalgia and the very real fear that the best days are behind. More than anything, though, it’s a punchy set of classically styled and consistent tunes in line with what listeners have come to expect from the band. It imperils itself when it tries to be everything else.
The Oregon-based group’s sleeves are covered with their influences on this outing. “Rebel” evokes the outlaw country blues of Steve Earle, “Joanna” sounds like a cut from Springsteen’s Nebraska, “Dance With Me” could be Long After Dark-era Tom Petty, and “Stolen Hearts” might be heard on a poppier version of Neil Young’s Harvest. These acknowledgments aren’t intended pejoratively (Neil Young himself has probably made eleven poppier Harvests since 1972). It’s in fact refreshing to hear a band carry the torches of their forebears as loudly as Blitzen Trapper do, unwilling to compromise tried-and-true forms of pop songcraft in their pursuit of musical auteurism.
That is not to suggest their unique prints aren’t all over the album as well. The so-called “prime of life” described by Wild And Reckless has been well-documented in popular music for the better part of a century but singer/songwriter Eric Earley has a painterly eye for detail that sets his words apart and a master’s ability to work weighty, provocative lines into his ostensibly sunniest tunes. Fitting a phrase like “I’ve spent a lifetime running from the man I used to be” into as ebullient a number as “Dance With Me” without detectable strain is much easier said than done, and Earley does it again and again.
He also proves himself commendably audacious and unsparing on the previously mentioned “Joanna,” a chilling tune that sees him assume the role of a sexually assaulted thirteen-year-old girl turned murderous avenger with unsettling intimacy and calm. The most thematically and aurally incongruous song on the album, “Joanna” is also probably its most stunning, even if it muddles the already vague narrative.
The music, too, is bold, if not exactly eye opening. A spoken word passage here, fuzzed-out psychedelic guitars there – things you’ve heard before that sometimes surprise in their present context. “Forever, Pt. 1” and “Forever, Pt. 2” stand as the album’s most experimental tracks with lush synths, spacey effects and rich harmonies on spare lyrics – hardly any at all on the former. They compel in their runtimes but, like “Joanna,” register as wasted opportunities for stronger beats in the song cycle. It’s a problem that plagues Wild And Reckless – less problem than annoyance, perhaps. By album’s end you’ll wish that you never heard about this “concept album” business and could just enjoy it as a terse set of solid folk-rock songs rather than searching for specters of greater reason that may not appear.